Archive | Decision Making

Three Signs You Need to Check Your Premises

Ayn Rand coined the catch phrase: “Check your premises.”
A premise is a past conclusion that supports your present thinking. Her point was that if you arrive at a contradiction in the present, there is an error somewhere in your past conclusions. You need to find that mistake, because otherwise it will sabotage you.

Here’s the problem: mistaken premises can be difficult to spot. You need a special act of self-awareness to catch them and correct them.

A mistaken premise is difficult to catch because it forms a kind of a blinder. Let me explain.

At the time you formed any premise, you concluded it was true. It may even have been true then, but some factor in the world has changed since that time.

In every choice we make, in every conclusion we reach, in every outcome we predict, we rely on our past conclusions. What we have previously established as true or good or important provides an automatized context for concluding whether some new idea is true or good or important. We couldn’t function at an adult level without this context; we’d be like a mentally retarded adult, seeing only what is in front of him, without the wherewithal to project much into the future or learn much from the past.

For the most part, our automatized context of conclusions serves us well. But when there is a wrong premise in the context, it distorts the calculus. It means that a new idea is tested against a false one. You can easily reach a new mistaken conclusion.

To concretize, imagine you were in a neighborhood that you had visited many times. On your way out to the highway, you take shortcut. But en route, you see a sign that indicates the highway is in a different direction. How would you judge that new information?

You might very well conclude you know better, especially if you had an explanation for why your shortcut wasn’t marked. It is normal to trust your own mind.

However, it is possible the traffic pattern has changed, and your “better” way is no longer an option. If that’s the case, you will wind up taking the long way around, not a shortcut. You won’t figure out that you’re making a mistake until you follow the premise all the way through to failure.

When a few minutes delay is all that you risk, it may not matter how soon you catch a mistake.

But as the stakes get higher, you need an early warning system to alert you that a premise deserves checking. Here are three signs that I use to warn me that I should consider whether I am operating on misinformation:

1. Surprise

Surprise is the ultimate “does not compute” signal, and a definite sign to check your premises. And yet often people assume that the new information is misleading, rather than that they have made a mistake in their thinking.

For example, an experimental researcher I know found she had to train new graduate students to take surprise seriously. When an experiment gave a surprising result, their default reaction was to re-run the experiment rather than check their premises. But surprising outcomes indicate new factors that were unknown.

Some great inventions come from following up on surprising results to learn something new.

2. A Pattern of Failure

When things go wrong in the same way, again and again, despite your effort to the contrary, it’s time to check your premises.

For example, if you’re having the same argument escalate again with the same person, you know for sure that you are not discussing the real issue. Or if you’re having trouble getting to work on time, despite troubleshooting the issue, you know that you have not identified the root cause of the tardiness.

Such problems are vicious cycles. They are often held in place by a false theory about how the world “should” be. The argument “should” convince the other person. Or the other person “should” listen better. Or you “should” be able to get up without hitting the snooze button. Or you “should” be able to do your morning routine in 32 minutes flat.

When practice refutes theory, theory needs to change.

3. Victimhood

“I have no choice.” “It’s impossible.” “I can’t.” Whenever you see yourself as the victim determined by circumstances, you know there is a premise to check.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be an objective problem, but whether to solve it and how you solve it is your choice.

For example, I remember being disappointed that I “couldn’t” take a class on Human Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) in my senior year of high school. It didn’t fit with physics, which was required for college. My younger brother proved that premise wrong. He took physics as a junior, so he had the flexibility to take A&P as a senior. I had not valued A&P highly enough to make it a priority, which includes planning long range to make it possible. He had.

There can be circumstances which make it difficult to achieve a specific goal. But if that goal is literally impossible to achieve, it is illogical to aim for it. Having it as a goal is based on a wrong premise.

On the other hand, if the goal is very difficult, it’s important to acknowledge that going after it or not is a choice of priorities. A difficult goal may require significant time and energy. You may need to drop lesser goals that would prevent you from achieving it. You may need to plan over time to ensure you can achieve it.

It is not true that you can “have it all.” You can have what is most important to you. Facing your actual choices often takes challenging old premises.

When you have a wrong premise, one way or another it puts you on a path to failure. That’s why eliminating wrong premises sooner rather than later is so important to success. The first step? Pay attention to these three signs that you need to check your premises: Surprise, a pattern of failure, and victimhood.

September 23, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t mistake your questions for your choices

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make in decision-making is to confuse your questions about the future with your choices. For example, I was asked, suppose you love music, and like medicine, but you are concerned about pursuing a career in music because it is so difficult. How do you decide between a career in music or medicine?

My immediate response to that question is: you don’t face that choice directly.

The choice of career is an example of a complex decision that is made over a period of months or even years. You have too many questions about the future to make a decision per se. If you just try to ask yourself “which should I do?” you could easily find yourself stymied by the answer “I don’t know.”

Indeed, the first step of my Eyes-Wide-Open decision process is to identify the choice you actually face. The choice you actually face is a choice between 2-3 options that you know enough about that you can act on now, as opposed to some vague desires regarding the future with many unknowns.

You may think of your decision in terms of a complex choice involving the future. But this decision needs to be made over time by reducing it to a series of simple binary choices–judgment calls–that you can answer with confidence right now.

A judgment call is the answer to a yes-or-no question, such as, “Should I go to this college?” or “Is this a better option than that?” Any simple judgment of whether something is true/false, good/bad, right/wrong, or important/unimportant is a judgment call. You could rewrite any such judgment call in the form of a “yes or no” question.

When you have a lot of gaps in your knowledge, instead of a “yes” or “no” answer from your subconscious, you will hear “I don’t know.” You also might hear “I don’t know” if you haven’t warmed up your own knowledge of the facts and values relevant to the question. Worse, if you haven’t warmed up that information, you have no idea whether your judgment call is correct. It will be based on ideas you’re presently aware of, not those that have been forgotten.

(This psychological fact gives rise to the #1 rule of logic: Hold context. If you have made a good faith effort to become aware of all relevant information, you are justified in assuming your judgment call is valid.)

The art of decision making includes figuring out which judgment call you can make now. You will need to reduce complex decisions into simple judgment calls because you simply can’t hold all of the complex issues in mind at once, and/or you don’t know enough to make a final decision.

In these cases, you need to step back and think at the “meta-level.” You need to think about the situation you are in, what choice you can make now, and how your choice will help you make the complex decision in the future.

The choice you face now is specific to your circumstances.

Suppose the person who loves music first, then medicine strongly, is 18 years old. The decision he faces is his decision of where to go to college and what to study. What he decides to do depends in part on where he is accepted. If he is accepted to top notch music programs, he faces a very different choice than if he is rejected by all the top music schools. His rejection by those schools is extremely important information about his prospects for making a living as a musician.

Suppose he gets into a good university with a top-notch music program, and decides to keep his options open by studying music and taking all of the necessary pre-med courses. He will have a different decision to make when it comes time to apply to medical school.

If he gets into medical school, he will have yet a different choice. If he is not accepted into medical school and he is not outstanding as a musician, he faces yet a different choice.

For any of these decisions, he will make a choice which incorporates what he sees as his prospects in both areas, including such values how much he wants to be a world-class musician, how much work it would take to be a doctor or a musician, whether he enjoys that kind of work, whether he believes he can keep both options open, and how much material comfort matters to him. That’s why he needs a decision process that helps him hold the full context.

None of these is a decision just between medicine and music. Each one is a decision, at a given time, to take a specific action, which has consequences for his entire life. In fact, all choices have consequences for one’s entire life, but it is clearest in major choices such as the choice of career.

The choice you face is between options you can act on now. If you are not accepted to medical school, you do not face a choice of whether to go or not.

When the future unfolds in a surprising way, you may need to do some high level exploration just to see what new choices you face. You might be able to name a dozen possible actions after you get that rejection slip. You could take additional classes so you can re-apply next year to different schools, enroll in nursing school, change your focus to podiatry or optometry or some other specialty that doesn’t require medical school, etc.

Before you could choose between so many disparate options, you might need to make simpler judgment calls, such as, should I…

  • attempt to get into medical school next year?
  • change to some other medical specialty for now and revisit medical school later?
  • drop the goal of getting into medical school?
  • leave medicine altogether?

The test of whether you have sufficiently simplified a complex decision is that your questions are answerable and your choices are actionable. You know what to do now, given the judgment call you just made.

Action is crucial to decision-making. As you take steps in the present to pursue music and/or medicine, you develop specific interests, you discover what work is involved, you find out what the risks and opportunities are for you, personally, given your intelligence, aptitude, and work ethic.

Complex decisions such as choice of career are made over time, by identifying the choice you actually face at each moment, and choosing the next steps based on everything you’ve learned plus everything you can predict. They are choices between real-life options in the present, not floating questions about the future.



June 17, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Alternative to a “No Choice” Rule

I am halfway through The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person. Judith Beck’s exercises, combined with MyFitnessPal, are helping me adhere to a lose-a-pound-a-week diet. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I give it a qualified recommendation.

My biggest reservation concerns Beck’s advice to tell yourself you have “no choice.” To help avoid overeating, she recommends you make a written food plan the day before (which is good). But if you are tempted to eat something which isn’t on the plan, she says:

Tell yourself that you don’t have a choice. You made a plan, and you’ll follow that plan–no ifs, ands or buts.

Firmly saying, NO CHOICE, decreases both the struggle and the discomfort.” [Emphasis in the original.]

I disagree deeply. Telling yourself you have “no choice” may sometimes give the illusion of reducing struggle in the short term, but in the long term, it sets up a vicious cycle of suffering and increasing struggle. Think: lose weight, then gain it back plus a little extra, repeated ad nauseam.

Telling yourself you have “no choice” is wrong for many reasons. The primary reason is that it’s not true. A decision made today does not constrain your behavior tomorrow. You still face a choice. Telling yourself that you have “no choice” doesn’t change that fact. Rather, it’s an attempt to manipulate yourself into pretending there is nothing more to think about.

I don’t believe in telling “white lies,” and I don’t believe in trying to fool yourself into pretending that things are other than they are. In this case, it’s particularly destructive. You are trying to get yourself to do something that at some time in the past you predicted would be the right course of action in this present moment, because by some convoluted reasoning you think that manipulating yourself to do it would be easier and more comfortable than just making a fully conscious rational choice now.

Look at the psychological ramifications of such an approach:

This method works by moral pressure. When you feel the temptation or resistance, you shout it down with “NO CHOICE.” What backs up “no choice”? It’s unspoken but it’s understood: if you give in, you are no good. This is motivation by guilt and fear.

Notice the mechanism by which motivation by fear functions: by shutting down thinking. You are not to think for one second about this decision. You are to go by faith that what you concluded yesterday is still correct today. You are not allowed to question that.

And notice the implicit premise in this approach: it doesn’t matter how you feel right now. Your feelings are irrelevant to your choices. Feelings should not be given credence. You can suffer those contrary feelings or suppress them, but don’t take them seriously.

This is the exact opposite of what I teach. The best policy, in dieting as in life, is full awareness. That means thinking more actively when you face a problem, so that you can get to the bottom of it. That means introspecting feelings more deeply when you’re in a conflict, so that you can understand the values at stake in the moment. That then permits you to make choices based on pursuing values rather than avoiding threats, which serves to integrate your value hierarchy, reducing conflict over the long term.

There’s a lot I could say about how the “no choice” method sets up a vicious cycle, but I expect the most urgent question on everyone’s mind is, what do you do instead?

The appeal of the “no choice” method is that it’s fast and simple, and when you use it, you get instant results. It is rewarded with a shot of pride–or to be more exact, a shot of relief. You’ve passed the test for the moment. You’re a good person.

The alternative I have developed is pretty much the opposite in every respect. It starts with the premise that you’re a good person. That is not in question. Nor is it a test: you sometimes (though not so often) will decide to eat the forbidden food as a result of examining your feelings, but you will be morally satisfied with your decision. When you are first introduced to my method, it does not seem particularly fast or simple. But once you have practiced the method, it becomes fast enough and simple enough and gratifying enough that you will be willing to use it any time you are conflicted about doing something that you believe you should do.

Here is how the method works:

When you feel you have “no choice” but to eat what you planned, you first remind yourself of what that means: it means that yesterday, you concluded that the best way for you to reach your health goal was to eat this and not something else. My assumption is, if that is true, then when you look at the issues fully, the decision to follow your plan will become a no-brainer. The next steps help to look at the issue fully.

To do that, you remind yourself that your conflict or resistance or temptation is a feeling, and that all feelings are caused by the idea that some value of yours is threatened by your intention to stick to your meal plan in this moment.

This means that there is a contradiction between yesterday’s conclusion and some idea (you don’t know what yet) that underlies the feeling. Right now, all you know is that one of them must be mistaken. It cannot both be better for you to eat the food right now, and better for you not to eat the food right now. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.

The “no choice” method assumes you were right yesterday. But that is just an act of faith. You have some evidence that there is an issue you hadn’t considered. The full awareness method says, let’s look at it.

You want to figure out what is best for you in this moment. To do that, you need to activate the full value context. The method I use for this is something called “Decision Cards,” which I learned from P. J. Eby. In short, you start by listing all of the negatives of each option. You examine them carefully, identifying “intolerable” negatives and adjusting your options (and sometimes your attitude) until you see you face two tolerable options (though they might be unpleasant).

Once you have established that the two options are tolerable, you reconceive all of the motivation in terms of pursuit of values. Motivation by fear is an attempt to protect a value. It can be translated into motivation by values by identifying that value. So, for example, a negative of sticking to your plan might be that you will be distracted by the craving for a candy bar. This means that a positive of eating the candy bar is short-term concentration and reduction of distractions.

Once you have translated all of the pros and cons into positives for each option, it is a simple judgment call to decide which is the best. You then give a one-sentence reason for your conclusion. Why is this the better choice? With the choice and the reason, you will feel motivation to follow through at that instant.

Most of the time, this analysis turns your choice into a no-brainer, and you act on it. You get the same jolt of pride that the “no choice” method gives, but without the need to suppress or suffer emotional conflict. And you get an added bonus: that contradictory idea has been disintegrated. It has a little less hold on you. It will be a little easier to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Some of the time, you will decide to have one cookie, perhaps to celebrate the completion of a task. You’ll enjoy the cookie thoroughly and go back to work. Then you might choose to spend an 5 extra minutes on the Stairmaster that night, so that you can make your weight-loss goal, despite eating a cookie that was not on your plan. You end the day satisfied that you have many options for losing weight, glad that you can fit in the occasional little treat. You are more willing to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Finally, some of the time, you will realize later that you were mistaken.  Suppose you decided, “I am going to eat one cookie now, because it will satisfy my craving and let me concentrate.” But then you see in hindsight that you ate 3 cookies, and promptly dozed off. So you couldn’t concentrate anyway. And then, one hour and fifty-eight minutes later, you were craving more sugar.

You have now given yourself evidence that sugary snacks undermine concentration–something you obviously didn’t know, or you wouldn’t have thought you’d be able to concentrate. You can feel satisfied that you have learned a real lesson, from firsthand experience, which will make it more compelling for you avoid sugary snacks in the future. You will see more clearly the risks of not sticking to the meal plan.

In contrast, if you had just eaten the cookies without this kind of thought, you would properly feel guilty about it, and that guilt would overshadow and confuse any evidence you might get about the effect of the sugary snack on your energy level. You would not associate any loss of energy with the sugary snack. Rather, you would attribute it to guilt. You wouldn’t learn anything from your mistake–but you would reinforce the idea that you really are no good. You would be discouraged, and less interested in even looking at your meal plan for the next day.

The principle is: trust full awareness. If your preconceived notion is clearly the best course for you, then examining any conflict about it will turn your choice into a no-brainer. And if it isn’t, choosing based on the full value context will help you untangle the value issues at stake, helping you see all issues more clearly. Over the long term, that makes sticking to a diet–or creating any other life-affirming habit–that much easier.

March 18, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Magic Words to Counter Social Pressure

I have just finished reading a short book on sales explaining the “magic words” to use to persuade people to do what you want. I have had a conniption fit several times while reading it. The purpose of the book is to teach the reader to become a “professional mind-maker-upper.”

Making up your mind is not a job to outsource.

To help you, the targets of these strategies, I have worked out some “magic words” to counter these manipulative tactics.

Don’t get me wrong–a persuasive sales presentation and compelling marketing copy are a value to every potential customer. A sales person who understands the issues and is good at drawing out your concerns can help you articulate your challenge and see more clearly the choice you face.

For example, one valid sales technique is to draw out the ramifications of buying versus delaying. Delaying an important decision is often a disaster–the same bad situation gradually decays, nothing changes, the misery grows. But these negatives are often ignored. Delay is the easy, passive choice. A good salesperson can help you see the penalty of delay. This is a benefit to you.

But no matter how good and honest the salesperson is, he does not have your full context. And a manipulative salesperson will attempt to lead you to drop the full context, and make a decision impetuously.

My standard operating procedure, and my recommendation to you, is to decide tomorrow. I try not to make any decision that requires the commitment of more than an hour of time, or more than $200, when in conversation with another person. There is too much risk of being caught up in the current context and ignoring what I already know. Indeed, I have a resolution to use the focused choices decision process for these decisions–especially the time commitments–so that I don’t overschedule myself. As a shorthand to hold this resolution, I “decide tomorrow.”

I put such decisions on the agenda for my morning planning time, or for a conversation with my husband, or for a particular time. I make the decision consciously, after having mulled over it and used my decision process.

In contrast, the “magic words” in the book I was reading were designed to short-circuit the decision process and pressure you into a “yes.” Here are some magic words you can use in response to break the spell:

Scenario 1: You say, “I need some time to think about it.” He says, “What is it you want to think about?” This is a ploy to try to get you to run out of arguments at the moment, so you feel you have no reason to say no. But the reason you need to think about it, is that you don’t necessarily think up all of the negatives on your feet, in a social situation. So, here’s what I say:

“I need some time to think about it.”
“What is it you want to think about?”
“I always make decisions the next day, so I have a chance to reflect on how the decision fits with my other priorities.”

Scenario 2: You demur in some way. He says, “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”This is a ploy to make you feel like saying “no” would make you “close minded.” No one likes to view himself as close-minded. But as Ayn Rand said,

[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term–as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices–and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

She concludes that what you need is not an “open mind,” but an active one. Here’s how I would answer the “open minded” ploy:

“Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”
“On the contrary, I prefer to be active-minded, recognizing that ‘giving this a chance’ is a commitment of time, energy and resources. I don’t fall into decisions, I make them consciously. That is why I will spend time tomorrow thinking about how this fits with my priorities.”

Scenario 3: You say you don’t have time to discuss this. He says, “When would be a good time?” This is a ploy that assumes facts not in evidence: that this is high enough priority for you to devote time to even talking about it. As it says in the book, which I am not naming, because I don’t want to give it publicity, this question “prompts the other person to assume that there will be a good time and that no is not an option.”

This question is an example of the logical fallacy, “complex question.” The classic example of that is: “When did you stop beating your wife?” The response to a complex question is to name the false assumption. Here’s how I would handle the “when would be a good time” ploy:

“When would be a good time?”
“That assumes that this is high enough priority for me to make time. I don’t see that. You are welcome to send me written materials, and if I see from them that this would be worth more of my time, I’ll set up a call with you. But right now, my priorities lie elsewhere.”

As I said, I had a conniption fit when I read this book. I picked it up, because I was hoping for advice on how to explain the value of my services. But manipulation is antithetical to my morality–and of course to my brand. I kept reading the book, because it concretized a wide range of the thinking problems that I am trying to help people conquer.

My mission is to help everyone be his own mind-maker-upper.

One way to become a better mind-maker-upper yourself is to choose to make your decisions tomorrow–safely apart from the pressure of a “professional” mind-maker-upper attempting to influence you.

March 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Take the Laugh Test

In another article, I mentioned that whenever you give a reason for your conclusion, you should pause to make sure it passes the Laugh Test.

Yes, the “Laugh Test.”

Sometimes your reason will turn out to be a patent rationalization, and you won’t be able to repeat it without grimacing. A rationalization is a pseudo-reason that substitutes for the real reason because the real reason is unknown or unpalatable.

For example, imagine you are ready to start work on the most difficult, most important work of the day, when it occurs to you that you should check your email, “just in case there’s something important there.” That reason just doesn’t pass muster. There’s something important in front of you–and a hundred distractions in your email inbox. It’s a rationalization for avoiding the hard work you just sat down to do. When you realize how lame that reason is, you’ve got to laugh.

Or at least I hope you will. Responding to such mistakes with laughter, not self-condemnation, puts you in an excellent state to do the work you need to do. You need to figure out what your real motivation is without prejudice. You do not know how to evaluate the rationalization until you investigate further.

After all, rationalizations can occur to you innocently. They do not necessarily mean anything in particular, except that you haven’t yet identified a good reason for your decision.

For example, I remember an incident from when I was an undergraduate that shows how easy it is to make a decision without knowing the real reason. I was in the dorm dining hall, having just made myself a waffle and buttered it, when my friend Maria asked me if I wanted syrup. I said no, I used sugar, “fewer calories.” She looked at me skeptically and said, “I don’t think so–not with six pats of butter on your waffle.”

I remember being embarrassed and surprised. She was absolutely right. Those were the good old days when I was oblivious to how many calories I was eating. I wasn’t dieting. I wasn’t trying to diet. The best I can reconstruct it, I asked myself, “why do I use sugar?” and it occurred to me that I put less sugar on my waffles than most people put syrup, which results in fewer calories. So I blurted that out.

It was only when I started to write up this story that I asked myself more seriously, why do I use granulated sugar instead of syrup? I didn’t know offhand! I remember when I switched. I was at Girl Scout camp, which had only fake syrup, which I detested. So I switched to putting sugar on pancakes and the like. But ever since then, I’ve used sugar even when real maple syrup was available.

In writing this story, I finally really put some thought into it. Here’s why I use sugar: I prefer the texture of butter and sugar to the gloppiness of syrup. Even now, probably 25 years after my last waffle smothered in butter and sugar, I salivate when I remember that crunchy greasy combination. Yum. And I recoil slightly when I think of how syrup would make everything soggy and sticky in my mouth.

Who knew? I didn’t.

It was not obvious to me why I used sugar instead of syrup. My subconscious threw up “fewer calories” as a hypothesis. I grabbed that idea unthinkingly, when a few minutes of thought could have given me an accurate reason.

This particular incident was embarrassing in hindsight–and may have given Maria a poor opinion of me–but it had no particular import. It was caught and corrected in my mind. The real problem comes when a rationalization is motivated, and is neither caught nor corrected.

A rationalization is “motivated” when the truth is known but unpleasant. For example, it’s common to blame being late on last-minute emergencies (something outside of your control), instead of a failure to plan enough buffer time to accommodate any last-minute difficulties at all (something in your control, for which you are responsible). In these cases, when the plausible, more pleasant idea occurs to you, it is appealing, in part because it diverts attention away from the guilt-producing alternative.

Nothing is ever gained by ignoring unpleasant truths, but rationalizations can occur to you with such speed and plausibility that you may not realize what’s happening. That’s why it’s helpful and important to take the Laugh Test to catch obvious rationalizations.

Let’s stipulate that no one reading this article would be consciously dishonest. No one would deliberately try to deceive himself about the truth behind his decision. The great risk for the honest person is that the rationalization could be automatized. The real reason could be tied to “old baggage”–painful issues that have been repressed, and are not easily accessible.

Usually when you have “old baggage” in the background, your subconscious will offer up a plausible alternative explanation. The first time a plausible rationalization occurs to you, you may be fooled by it. But if you keep testing to see if your reasons pass the laugh test, you’ll eventually see there is something fishy.

For example, suppose you stay up past your bedtime “just to get one more thing done-one night with less sleep won’t matter.” The first time this idea occurs to you, it might be plausible. If every night you struggle to get to bed on time, and every night you want to stay up “just to get one more thing done,” over time your track record will show that the desire to “just get one more thing done” is part of the reason that you don’t get enough sleep. When that same reasoning leads to failure again and again, you realize it is bogus. There is some deeper, less palatable reason that you are not going to bed on time.

It’s quite unpleasant to catch your own rationalizations. It’s embarrassing to see that you were taken in by a fake explanation. It’s shocking to realize you’ve been avoiding the real reason. But these negatives pale in comparison to the havoc created by not knowing the real reason that underlies your motivation.

If you catch a hint of rationalization in your thinking, it is a huge warning bell indicating you have a lead to significant new information that needs to be factored into your decision. You need to stop and think a little more deeply, so you can know the truth.

That’s the payoff from taking the Laugh Test.

February 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Add a 15-Second Check to Your Decision

As a general rule, it is proper to trust your mind. Your conscious conclusions are based on all of your past choices, your past experiences, and the cumulative expertise you’ve built up over the years.

However, when you make a decision based on limited information, you know that you may have lacked crucial knowledge. It doesn’t matter how experienced or diligent you are–it’s inherent in the situation. You need to keep your eyes open for information that would change your mind. You need a reliable way to spot evidence that you may have made a significant mistake.

That’s why, when you make a decision, I recommend a simple policy of “trust but verify.” Assume that you made good use of all of the information that was available, but take an extra 15 seconds to verify your decision with the following process:

  1. Give a one-sentence reason for your decision.
  2. Ensure your reason passes the “laugh test.”

This 15-second verification has many benefits. The first you’ll notice is that it gives you an efficient first check to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious in your decision-making. If you can’t give a one-sentence reason for your decision, or your reason doesn’t pass the “laugh test,” your decision needs further analysis.

When I say “give a reason,” I mean blurt out a one-sentence reason that sums up the process that you used to make the choice.  In certain circumstances you may need a special high-power decision process, but in general, I assume that you are an experienced thinker and decision-maker, reasonably satisfied with your existing method. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I simply suggest that you add on 15 seconds to the end of your decision process to help you verify it.

Give a reason for your conclusion. By a reason, I mean an objective, fact-based explanation for why you are going in this direction–not just a statement of your feelings. Why did you choose the way you did?

For example, suppose you decide to start work on a project before going through your email inbox. Why? Don’t settle for “it seemed like a good idea” or “I felt like it.” These are contentless. They are subjective–they simply report the state of your mind.

When you give an objective reason for your decision, you make your assumptions and your expectations explicit. For example, suppose your reason were “I want to do the project before my mind gets caught up in the other work and I can’t concentrate.”

This explanation includes some implicit predictions that you can test. It implies that if you do the other work, then came back to the project, you’d have trouble concentrating. If something happens so you don’t follow your plan, then you try to come back to project later, do you have trouble concentrating? That will validate your reason. If not, it will invalidate it.

To take another example, suppose you decide to tidy your desk first, because “Tidying the desk will take just a few minutes and make it easier for me to settle into work.” If tidying your desk starts dragging on, you will notice that your assumptions were off. In contrast, if your reason was “that’s the way I work” (a subjective explanation), nothing follows from that.

The difference between an objective reason and a subjective thought is: an objective reason includes an appeal to facts that can be validated. It could include a factual assumption, a factual prediction, a factual comparison–any factual information that has implications for the future. In contrast, a subjective thought refers only to one’s present inner state. It adds up to only “here-now-this seems good.” It has no implications for the future. It may be true, but it is useless for validating your decision. Your reason for your conclusion doesn’t need to be certain, it just needs to be fact-based.

Giving a fact-based reason for your conclusion is the first and most important step to ensuring you make the best decision possible–one that you won’t regret. You can do it in 15 seconds without changing any aspect of your decision process.

Of course, sometimes once you come up with your reason you’ll realize you can’t say it out loud with a straight face. It doesn’t pass the “laugh test.” Then you have some more work to do, but that’s another topic for another time.

January 16, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Where to Look Before You Leap

A member of the Thinking Lab asked me for advice on how to decide whether to join a small startup or stay with his very successful, stable, lucrative job at a large company. Let’s call him Max. Max had done a lot of thinking about his choice, but he still had some nagging doubts. People had been saying he needed to make a “leap of faith” to join the startup, but he wanted a firmer basis for his decision. I would, too.

There is an objective problem in making such a high stakes decision. You simply do not know how the future will unfold–and it has significant implications. If the startup succeeds, Max could become extremely wealthy. If it fails, he could use up all of his savings and put his family’s security at risk.

Some people claim that the “rational” method for making difficult decisions is to assign probabilities for costs and payoffs of various outcomes, and then calculate which the overall expected value for each option. The option with the biggest expected value is supposed to be the one to choose.

I disagree that this is a rational approach to a decision that is inherently uncertain. First, the probabilities for the different outcomes are guesses. Second, the costs and payoffs for the different outcomes are guesses. Third, this method necessarily reflects your preconceptions of the risks and rewards. It amplifies any subjectivity in your decision-making process. It does nothing to help you expand the context of considerations so that you see as far as possible, you understand the risks and rewards as clearly as possible, and you make the decision as objectively as possible.

In contrast, a rational approach helps you be more objective. It helps you to activate and hold the full context for the decision. That context includes known facts, important values, and areas of risk. Once these are clear, you can make a judgment call based on all of that information.

The concrete method I teach for getting this clarity is called “Decision Cards,” Roughly speaking, you create a card for each option, putting positives on one side, negatives on the other. Then you systematically examine all of the negatives to translate them into equivalent positives for the other options. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the effect is that you reconceive the decision entirely in terms of values, and then you can choose your direction while “holding all of the values with care.”

For most decisions, you simply write down positives and negatives off the top of your head. However, in a high stakes case like deciding whether or not to join a startup, I recommend additional steps for due diligence. There are so many long-range implications of the choice that it’s difficult to come up with them all off the top of your head. You need some way to bring more of what you know to bear.

My method takes off from the “pre-mortem” developed by Gary Klein for planning. In his method, you imagine that your plan results in a total fiasco. Then you reflect on how that could have happened, and make contingency plans to try to avoid it. What I love about the “pre-mortem” is that it uses your imagination to visualize possible outcomes, which gives you concrete scenarios to explore. It gives you something useful to think about.

So here’s my adaptation for high stakes decisions: Do some “awfulizing” about what might happen, and then give yourself an “empathy bath” for all of those awful potentialities to get fully clear on the values at stake. Then you can continue with the usual decision-making process.

Let me just walk through how Max might come up with these awful scenarios and investigate them to help him make a solid decision.

First, he’d imagine that he went with the startup, but it was a disaster–it struggled or went bankrupt. Here are some of the awful consequences he might imagine:

  • This would radically reduce his savings at a critical point in his career that would make it hard for him to educate his children and live a comfortable retirement.
  • He might never again get as good a job as he has now.
  • The failure could result in ill-will between him and his partners, meaning he’d lose longtime friends.
  • The failure would create terrible strain on his marriage and family, because he would have been working insane hours to try to save the company. He might become estranged from his wife or children.

On the other hand, he’d also need to awfulize what might happen if he stayed at the big company and the startup succeeded. Here are some more awful consequences he might imagine:

  • He might feel lousy about having been afraid to try it.
  • He might feel bored and a little burned out with the same old job.
  • He might work just as hard to do well, with the same negative effect on his marriage and family, but with no offsetting personal meaning
  • He might see himself as a person who had even less of a “startup personality,” so he was even less ready to seize the next opportunity, thereby sabotaging a major life goal

Now, mind you, I just made these up knowing little about Max’s real concerns. But we’ve all had these kinds of negative thoughts. The negative thoughts that occur to you easily reflect your latent concerns. These are a hugely important source of information, worthy of further investigation.

This is a bit contrarian. You may believe you should eliminate your negative self-talk. Indeed, the cognitive therapy school of psychology specifically teaches people to catch and correct these kinds of exaggerated negative thoughts–that’s where I got the term “awfulizing” from. Let’s face it: these thoughts are exaggerated, overly negative, and totally depressing. If you believe them, you’d never do anything. You’d be totally paralyzed.

And yet, they are leads to deep rational values. Your deep rational values.

These are emotionally charged thoughts. Where there are emotionally charged thoughts, there are deep values at stake–values that you may not be aware of, but which are important enough to have triggered confusing, contradictory emotions that are strong enough to paralyze you.

So, although I agree that it’s important not to get lost in negative thoughts, it is also important not to fear them or feel you need to get rid of them. There are no unthinkable thoughts. Rather, I believe the best approach is to get very curious about them, and what underlying values they reflect.

The path from experiencing negative, destructive thoughts to identifying deep rational values goes through introspection. In particular, I recommend the method I call the “empathy bath.” When you give yourself an “empathy bath,” you systematically explore 8 families of emotions–both positive and negative versions, for 16 emotions total. For each emotion, you ask yourself why you might be feeling it in relation to the decision.

For example, one of the families is despair/hope. Based on the awfulizing I imagined above, Max might feel despair, because it seems like no matter what he does, his family life could suffer. On the other hand, he might feel hope, that knowing that’s a risk will help him plan to avoid it.

Awfulizing triggers a lot of emotions; the empathy bath clarifies them.

The last step of the empathy bath is particularly important when you are making long-range decisions: identify the deep rational values that underlie every affect-laden or evaluative statement in the preceding work. The shortlist of deep rational values is available in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

For example, Max’s concern about the family reveals a need for connection with them, and perhaps balance. His concern about boredom reveals a need for intellectual stimulation. His concerns about money reveals a desire to cherish and support his family.

The final step is particularly important, because naming the deep rational values clarifies the full context for the decision. Whenever you have an ambitious goal, you will face conflict at times. Pursuing one value will necessarily mean that other values get less time and attention. The constructive way to deal with conflict is to get crystal clear on all of the values at stake, and then choose the top value–the priority. The priority is not the only thing you do–it’s the most important. The priority is the one that gets the first call on your time and attention–but not all of your time and attention. When you know your priority, you can use that clarity to help allocate your energy to your other values.

When you make a decision based on top values, you can’t go wrong. Either it all works out, and you succeed. Or, you discover that the path you thought was the path to your top value was mistaken in some way–and you can correct your course. In either case, you stay focused on positives, not fears or regrets.

This is a short essay on a huge topic. I include references to the specific tactics I mention for further reading.

The bottom line: If you face a high stakes decision, take some time to get clear on all of the deep rational values at stake. Once you are clear on them, you will be able to choose a direction with confidence that you are pursuing what matters most to you.

December 2, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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